Sign Language—in Dutch

Oct. 27, 2008
Is the U.S. unique in its stance on security?

Dateline: Eindhoven , the Netherlands


This week, I've been fortunate to engage in some uniquely Dutch rituals. I arrived two days ago at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam , and then took the train south an hour and a half to the town of Eindhoven to meet up with my wife, who is working here this week.

We have been pleasantly surprised by the warm and sunny weather. After I arrived, with the temperatures at 31 degrees Celsius and the sky an azure blue, we decided to drive through the center of the country toward the city of Maastricht . On the way back, we stopped in the beautiful village of Maarheeze , about 12 kilometers shy of our hotel.

Along the main road that runs through town, every café, bistro, tavern, bakery, and eatery had pulled tables and chairs onto broad patios, bicycle paths, sidewalks, and even the median of the road. The wait staff was trundling trays of beer, coffee, and sandwiches to people who walked up and took a seat. Inside these establishments, not one customer sat at a table. Barstools were empty. All the clientele lounged outside to enjoy the weather.

The peculiar aspect was not that the Dutch would be eager to enjoy the pleasing weather. Anyone would. It was that everyone sat as though at a theater. Couples sat side by side looking out toward the road or market area. Even tables of four had their chairs cantered to sit facing outward. Instead of being huddled into small groups talking around the table, everyone stared in relative silence at the passing parade of pedestrians, shoppers, cyclists, and the occasional Smart Car.

Everyone seemed to be taking a conscious part in this loosely choreographed spectacle. A couple in the throng of the passing parade exited to become audience members as they noticed recently vacated seats. They quickly sat to order an espresso. Then, their coffee and a “tosti” in hand, they turned their attention to the press of humanity they had just left. Those vacating a table in turn became new performers in the procession.

As my wife and I joined the audience, we noted other cultural differences. In Holland , clothing on such a day invites a colorful riot of styles. On a warm day back in my part of the United States , casually dressed men my age would most likely wear denim or khaki shorts, a t-shirt bearing some type of logo, and a pair of those big, pillowy, white tennis shoes with white socks. Most women—and probably 80 percent of those under 30—would be wearing some version of the ubiquitous flip-flop.

Here in the Netherlands , however, you really notice the shoes. In a country where walking and cycling are the most common forms of transportation, it should be no surprise that footwear is widely varied and colorful. I saw men with red and lime-green athletic shoes, women with snakeskin boots, and a wide variety of sandals. Colorful messenger bags and over-the-shoulder cases took the place of less practical purses and handbags. Instead of American Eagle or Abercrombie & Fitch, Bjorn Borg's name graces women's clothing, and G-SPORT the young men's.

Bicycles were everywhere. But they, unlike the shoes, were utilitarian in nature—the Dutch version of the Ford Model T. Almost all are black, olive drab, or some other basic color. Without exception, they had upright handlebars, a luggage rack to carry groceries or a side-saddle passenger, and a small headlight. Although this is a country where bicycle racing is followed with keen interest, the basic bicycle is perceived as simple, inexpensive transportation: no painted flames, no swooping handlebars.

When the beer I ordered arrived at our table, I was struck by another cultural difference. If you simply request a beer in Dutch (fortunately, the same pronunciation as in English, and the same spelling as in German), the waiter brings you a small glass with about six ounces of the light yellow liquid topped by a hearty head of foam. After filling the glass from a pressurized tap, the bartender takes a plastic spatula and scrapes any excess head from the rim to make it level with the top of the glass. My wife smiled and asked if I inadvertently ordered the child's portion. While the beer was a bit of a culture shock, the most thought-provoking cultural surprise of the trip came the next day.

We had decided to take the train to Amsterdam for some tourism, and at the rail station I caught sight of a small billboard on the wall. What drew my attention was the cartoonish depiction of a thief complete with a striped shirt, black eye mask, black newsboy hat, and thick facial stubble. The character sported a knowing leer as he gazed lustily at a purloined wallet. The words on the poster were in both Dutch and English, but even without the translation, the message was clear: Beware of pickpockets.

As we disembarked in Amsterdam , we were confronted with a similar placard, and I noticed four more of these security admonitions at other public venues during the rest of the trip.

Although I have traveled and lived in various parts of the United States , I do not recall seeing signs of this nature at home. I have been caught at night (by my poor planning) in San Francisco 's Tenderloin District, have walked though Boston 's infamous Combat Zone, transversed seedy areas of Manhattan , and have driven down Jefferson Avenue in Detroit . During these errant excursions, the threat of personal and property crime was abundantly clear, but I never recalled being warned about it by the government.

I have to admit, the Dutch signs were effective. When I noticed them, I took a moment to feel for my wallet, and once, I decided to move my wallet and passport into a secured inside jacket pocket. I am sure that was the purpose of the warning. But there was something disturbingly passive about the signage. It was as if it tacitly espoused a preconceived notion that because this crime is happening, the local population should simply accept the fact, and those charged with security should simply warn the tourists about it. Underneath the polite warning lurks the shadow of surrender.

I would like to believe that culturally, we take a different view. Although crime is a major problem in far too many U.S. communities, security professionals in both public and private service feel they do not have to accept it. Even if we cannot eliminate a particular crime, we can take dramatic steps to minimize the threat. Here at home, we're more likely to see security signs that read “Neighborhood Watch” or “This House Is Protected by a Home Security System.” Instead of passively accepting criminal elements, we proactively deal with them.

This difference is no indictment of Dutch law enforcement. In fact, I felt safer in Amsterdam than I did in parts of Detroit . However, I think the way we approach crime says much about our cultural values. Accepting the inevitably of threats to our assets and personal well-being puts us on the defensive. As security professionals, we want to proactively confront and minimize these threats.

However, one cultural change I noticed in Holland could ultimately have a devastating effect on the American population. The threat is from capri-length summer trousers for men. If they show up over here, don't expect me to be keeping up with the latest European fashion. Please.


John McCumber is a security and risk professional. He is the author of Assessing and Managing Security Risk in IT Systems: A Structured Methodology from Auerbach Publications. Mr. McCumber can be reached at

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